Mechanically Challenged

Despite the nauseating number of times I have read A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Mechanicals have always seemed sort of arbitrary to me.  I've always thought they were there to provide a cheap, guaranteed laugh to pull the audience in and punch up the enjoyment of Act 5. I mean, the main conflict (the who-marries-who stuff) has been resolved by the end of Act 4, so Act 5 itself has always seemed like a silly epilogue to me. They're just there for those people in the movie theater who sit through lengthy scrolls of credits after the film ends in the hopes of seeing an extra scene or silly outtakes the director has decided to throw in.

All of that changed when I got to meet a group of actors who were playing the roles of the Mechanicals in a local production!

I recently had the opportunity to observe a live rehearsal of Act 3 of A Midsummer Night's Dream, as performed by the cast at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. It was definitely the first time I had even gotten to see the intricacies of the acting process (as performed by professionals), and it was a marvelous experience.

The actors were just off-book, meaning they had read and memorized their lines, conducted table-reads, and had critical discussions about the motivations and traits of each of their characters. They were about two weeks into the rehearsal process. For those who don't eat, sleep, and breathe MidsummerAct 3 is when Bottom parades his donkey head around and Titania awakes to fall in love with him.

Watching the rehearsal was so entertaining, not just because the text is written to be such, but because the actors were grappling with the process at the same time. "At what moment should Bottom fully succumb to Titania's powers/beauty," one actor asked another. "I'd like Titania to seem more manic than actually attracted to Bottom, like she can't help herself and she doesn't even understand why," another actor would muse. "Oberon's anger toward Titania ultimately comes from jealousy. He's not jealous in the sense that he thinks she cheated on him. Rather, he's jealous that now Titania is giving her attention to a little changeling boy instead of to him." The level of characterization involved was drool-worthy, and I totally geeked out.

This was the day when The Mechanicals came to life for me. Suddenly, they were round characters with real fears, real dreams, and real goals. They were all blue collar workers who wanted more for themselves. They each had weaknesses and they all rallied to support one another. They were boldly going for something that no one expected them to be able to do. They all wanted to "take pains - be perfect" because they cared about being a part of something bigger than themselves. We can all relate to them and we can find them funny at the same time.

I chided myself a bit - after all, I am well aware that Shakespeare's clowns are never just clowns. In fact, they're often the most insightful, most brutally honest, and most cerebral characters. By dismissing them as fools purely in existence for comic relief, I was of course missing something greater.

I can't help but assume that our students miss out on these unique, delightful, supremely real characters as well. And while they may not uncover the characters' motivations as thoroughly as professional actors do, I think it's important not to write them off completely. It's certainly tempting to do so, since we as teachers never have enough time to teach everything we need to teach. Further, students can completely disregard The Mechanicals and still understand the plot of the play. But oh, what fun The Mechanicals are!

I made a quick, relatively simple, and highly engaging activity for my students to "get to know" The Mechanicals a little better. Introducing: Who Are The Mechanicals?: A Paperless Card Sort!
Card sorts are a great idea and a wonderful way for students to build new schema, but they're a pain in the butt to manage. Cutting the cards out creates a mess, as does the glue. There's always one kid who loses pieces, and another who glues it all down and then realizes it's all wrong. And if you run out of time, you'd better have envelopes or clips or bags prepared and labeled so your students don't lose all their work and end up frustrated! Let's go digital, folks. Save yourself some headaches.

My paperless card sort activity is designed to reacquaint your students with The Mechanicals so they can fully enjoy and understand the hilarity that ensues in Act 5. This activity challenges students to decide who each character is, what they might look like, the parts they will perform, and the motivation (or lack thereof) each character has for his role. Students simply drag and drop the correct "cards" onto the slide that matches each character. Check it out:

As an added bonus, there is a video activity attached to the end of the card sort for your "early finishers." They can view the video and then go back and check their work before they turn it in. This resource also includes an "instructions" sheet you can project, print, or use as a guide when you explain how this activity works to your students. Also included is an answer key, which makes grading a snap!

Visit my TpT Store for this and other great resources designed to clarify, amplify, and add joy to your Shakespeare unit!  If you do decide to purchase this resource, I'd love to know what you think of it and how I could perhaps improve it in the future. Feel free to leave comments below!

Thanks for reading!

A Single Step

Yesterday, I took my students to A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in Chicago, Illinois. It was a special trip for them, because they had just finished learning the play a few weeks earlier and they had earned admittance to the trip based on their level of effort, academic risk taking, and development of analysis skills. I'm not big on incentives, but if seeing a Shakespeare production can be used as one, I'm on board.

This was a special trip for me as well because, as you may know if you are a regular reader of this blog, A Midsummer Night's Dream was one of my first real connections to Shakespeare.  Here I am playing one of the fairies in Titania's bower in the sixth grade (see left).

It would appear that I have finally reached the age at which I can now share experiences I had in middle school with current middle schoolers.  I believe this places me into the category my students have entitled, "old," but I don't mind because getting old is a privilege denied to many.  Though I have no interest in having children of my own, I love that I still have so many opportunities to share positive experiences with young people. The fact that I am now experiencing the "full circle" of my Shakespeare experience is supremely satisfying to me.

Of course, passing on learning experiences to the "next generation" always includes some risk. What if they hated it? What if they fell asleep? What if they still didn't "get it?" What if they wiggled and shifted in their seats (thereby unknowingly exposing their disengagement with the play)? What if they decided to fiddle with the noisy plastic wrappers of their contraband hot chips during an important monologue? What if they decided to fold their programs into paper airplanes and challenge themselves to see how far onto the stage they could fly them? What if their phones went off or they decided to Snapchat silly faces in the middle of the play?

It's not lost on me that adults do these things, too.

I took a deep breath as the lights went down and resigned myself to whatever would happen. As usual, my students pleasantly surprised me. They laughed at all the right moments. They gasped or hooted or sighed at all the right moments. They got it! Success! Thank you, actors! Thank you, Shakespeare!  What delighted me the most, though, were the very polite, very quiet whispers I heard. "I want to be her," one girl remarked as Titania took the stage. "That was my part," someone whispered as Puck appeared behind Oberon. "That's bogus," a boy commented as Egeus screamed at his daughter, Hermia. And oh, the laughter when the mechanicals put on Pyramus and Thisbe!

The joy of seeing my students simply enjoying Shakespeare, rather than working so hard to understand him, was remarkable. I knew they were potentially forming many of the same positive associations with Shakespeare that I did when I was their age.  (Did I just say, "When I was their age?" Yeah, that happened.)

I don't know what my students will do with the positive associations they may or may not have formed with Shakespeare. But the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey has led me here to this blog, to my classroom, perhaps to a PhD someday, and to an endless fascination with those immortal words set down by a mysterious writer over 400 years ago. Where my students will go with Shakespeare is up to them. Off they go!

Thanks for reading!

Engaging with Shakespeare's Themes

There are many reasons why Shakespeare has survived (even thrived) over the past 400 years. Colonialism, the creators of the first folio, and the Folger Library certainly helped. But when teachers like me are considering what texts to expose students to that will help them grow, change, think, and develop a love of reading, there are intangible reasons why we continually reach for Shakespeare. And it's not just because he is required reading according to the Common Core State Standards.

It's the rich and round characters, the relatable conflicts they experience, the gravitational pull of the language they use, and the themes they grapple with. As a middle school teacher, I choose to connect my students with themes (because if I tried to connect them with all of those facets, we'd be studying Shakespeare all year long).

I focus on theme for two reasons.  The first is because I use Shakespeare to address this 7th and 8th grade standard: "Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text." The second is because Shakespeare gives us so many to choose from and he allows us to interpret them in endless ways. This leaves the door open for so many interpretations, that I can just about guarantee my students will choose a theme, own it, and reflect on it in a personal way.  This gets them to connect to the text in a personal way, which is key.
Before we even crack the cover on our Shakespeare plays, we discuss theme and identify common themes Shakespeare frequently addresses: love, change, gender roles, dreams, ambition, trust, jealousy, manipulation, loyalty, identity, etc. The list is extensive. Chances are, every human can find a theme that they will personally connect with in any play. So that's my natural starting place with my students.

When we study A Midsummer Night's Dream, I pull out themes that I think will catch my students' attention. I do this by getting to know them really well for the first half of the year. The student who is going through a bad break-up will be interested in manipulation. The student who doodles his significant other's name on his notebook will be interested in love. The student grappling with her gender identity will be interested in identity. The student who is struggling to navigate changes in her circle of friends will be interested in loyalty. I collect all of these anecdotes my students share with me and determine how to help them note how the characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream handle those issues and then decide whether they've made good choices or not.

It all begins with a personal connection. This can be done on paper or digitally; all students need is some time to reflect on their own lives and some guiding questions or statements to get them thinking about the situations and conflicts the characters in the play will be experiencing. Here is the one I used this year, though it admittedly changes every year.  I've done this in the form of a four corners debate, in which students must first make their decision about statements given and then explain their thinking in small groups. I've also done it as a silent, free-writing activity for students who prefer to process these things privately. It depends on who my class is each year.  Here's a sampling of what my students wrote about this year, with a little insight on how it helped them connect to the play once we began reading it:

Given Statement: Does love make people act like fools?
Student Response: "When you are in love, you think that person is special and very honest with you. But when you or the other person messes up, everything is ruined. You hate that person and wonder why you ever loved them. Then you realize you were a fool for trusting them and telling them everything." --Brandon, 8th Grade
How It Helped: When we encounter Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it's easy to stereotype her as being a desperate, lonely, clingy woman. She's rather pathetic in her unrequited pursuit of Demetrius, and my students are quick to judge her as a "crazy" girl. But if we can place her conflict into more personal context--and point out the detail that Helena and Demetrius were previously engaged in a romantic relationship--students will connect with her, understand her, and maybe even feel bad for her. Once this connection is made, Demetrius ends up looking like the bad guy, and Helena courageous for fighting for what she wants/what was promised to her.

Given Statement: Do men and women have different roles in a relationship?
Student Response: "I think they do have different roles because one has to act different than the other. Maybe one should set up the dates and it's different because the other will agree or disagree with the date. The man should pay for dinner most of the time." --Jonathan, 8th Grade
How It Helped: We repeatedly see women fighting for what they want in their relationships in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and what they want is frequently different from what the men in the story try to dictate. Hermia's father, of course, wants her to marry Demetrius instead of Lysander, so she runs away to elope with Lysander in the forest. Helena wants to rekindle her connection with Demetrius, and though he refuses she follows him in hot pursuit. Titania refuses to submit to her husband's wishes concerning the Indian boy, and does not back down from the conflict that results. These women break out of their stereotypical roles in their relationships to give us a more interesting, rich conflict to chew on.

Given Statement: Can we be manipulated into falling in love?
Student Response: "We can be tricked into falling in love. I fell in love with this one boy but we broke up because he tricked me. He made me believe it would last forever, like we promised each other." --Gladys, 8th Grade
How It Helped: Oberon (and by extension, Puck) is like an invisible puppet master throughout every scene that takes place in the forest in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He puts plans into motion and watches them unfold, mostly for entertainment. He manipulates Demetrius (on purpose) and Lysander (by accident), thereby wreaking havoc on their relationships with Hermia and Helena. He manipulates Titania to get the Indian boy from her. This may all seem far-fetched to a modern audience, because he uses magic to put this manipulation into progress. Regardless of his methodology, however, we can all relate to the situations he places other characters in because chances are, we've been manipulated ourselves.

By activating students' initial thoughts about each theme we study throughout the play, students realize they already know something about the action of the play. Personal connections make the characters and their conflicts relatable and encourage students to "dig a little deeper" than
what's written on the page. It activates a natural desire to analyze, to question, and to argue. Best of all, it is a really helpful way to get students over the hump of the flowery language because they are searching the text for specific evidence that justifies their feelings. Personal connections to the play, characters, and themes help keep students' attention throughout all five acts. Regardless of how bloody or unbelievable or confusing the play may get, they'll always be able to connect and see themselves within the conflicts.

How do you get your students to connect to Shakespeare on a personal level? I'd love to hear some more ideas!!  Feel free to comment and share them below.

Thanks for reading!
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